When the Ladder of Opportunity Falls Short

Editor's Note: This blog post was originally published by the 1:1 Fund.

"If the ladder of educational opportunity rises high at the doors of some youth and scarcely rises at the doors of others, while at the same time formal education is made a prerequisite to occupational and social advance, then education may become the means, not of eliminating race and class distinctions, but of deepening and solidifying them."

Harry S. Truman spoke these words in 1947—almost 70 years ago. Heard now, they carry an ominous ring. Does the ladder of opportunity extend to the doors of all youth? Has education managed to eliminate race and class distinctions?

The answer, according to a recent Pell Institute report on higher education equity, is a resounding "No." In fact, the report concludes, "The U.S. now has an educational system that serves to sort students...based on their demographic characteristics rather than provide all youth with the opportunity to use their creative potential."

Going Nowhere

How does our higher education system sort students?

  • Low-income students are less likely to get to college. On the report's first page, a graph documents bachelor's degree attainment by family income quartile from 1970 to 2013. The top line races upwards: the percentage of people in the top quartile who obtained bachelor's degrees jumped from 40% in 1970 to 77% in 2013. The remaining three quartiles struggle along at a much slower rate—and the bottom line is the flattest of all. From 1970 to 2013, the percentage of 18-24 year olds in the bottom quartile who attained a four-year college degree rose by only 3 percentage points, from 6% to 9%. Let's pause to soak in those numbers: individuals in the top income quartile are over 8 times as likely to obtain a bachelor's degree as those in the bottom quartile.
  • Low-income students are less likely to stay in college. Here's another astounding statistic: of students in the top income quartile who enter college, 99% go on to graduate. The rate for students in the bottom quartile? Just 21%. Where in 1970 this gap was 33 percentage points, it has now widened to 78 percentage points.
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  • More low-income students attend for-profit institutions. Students from the lowest-income quartile represent more than half (57%) of students attending private, for-profit four-year and two-year institutions. Lower-income students are overrepresented in for-profit and public two-year institutions, while higher-income students are overrepresented in doctoral-granting institutions.

Dual Culprits

How do tuition and debt play into educational inequality?

  • College costs have risen while federal aid has dropped. In 2012, college costs were 2.3 times higher than in 1975—yet Pell grants cover fewer costs than ever before. The percent of average college costs covered by the maximum Pell grant declined over 40 percentage points: from 67% in 1975 to 27% in 2012.
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  • More low-income students borrow money. From the report: "College costs are not only rising but also borne increasingly by students and their families, as the percent of costs paid by state and local funds has declined. For those in the bottom income quartile, average costs after all grant aid represented 84% of the average family income. Given these trends it is not surprising that both the percent of students who borrow to pay college costs and the amount they borrow have risen considerably since the 1990s. Low-income bachelor's degree recipients (as measured by Federal Pell Grant receipt) average higher amounts borrowed than other bachelor's degree recipients."

The Implications

What do these statistics mean for educational equity advocates?

  • Numbers help drive good policy. Institutions like the Pell Institute and Prosperity Now provide advocates with solid numbers to back up their claims. Prosperity Now, for instance, recently released a Scorecard that analyzes asset-building policies state-by-state. Armed with these statistics, advocates can make educational inequality impossible to ignore. Margaret Calahan, Director of the Pell Institute, provides recommendations at the end of the report that include increasing the reach of college access programs, restoring Pell grants to their former levels, and providing free tuition to community college.
  • Savings help narrow the attainment gap. Here's another statistic to throw into the mix: a low-income child with a savings account is three times more likely to enroll in college and four times more likely to graduate than their low-income peers. That's why the 1:1 Fund raises matching incentives for low-income families: because savings have been shown to build college expectations and create a "college-bound" identity for young participants. Paired with progressive policies, children's savings programs could help reverse the dire truth that, currently, 79% of low-income students who enter a four-year college do not graduate.

Imagine if President Obama's proposal for universal free community college went into effect. Ten years from now, a low-income high school graduate enters her local community college. Her family enrolled in a savings program when she was in elementary school; the seeded account, matching incentives, and their own small monthly contributions now give her the cushion she needs to focus on her studies without financial stress. She graduates knowing that, for the first time, her ladder of opportunity has no limits.

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